From arrests to apologies, the passionate battle between Native American tribes and Washington state over fishing rights has been intense and lengthy.
Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of a federal court ruling that affirmed treaty fishing rights for tribes. For the 80 Indians still alive who fought for their rights to fish in Washington’s waterways, they might finally get closure.
House Bill 2080 would erase criminal records and clear the names of Indians who were arrested during what is known as the civil rights movement of the Pacific Northwest: The Fish Wars.
A glimpse of history
In 1854, Washington tribes gave the U.S. two million acres of land in exchange for money, three reservations and access to traditional fishing rights under the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Similarly, the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point ensured Indians had a right to fish.
However, as salmon populations declined, the state implemented new regulations on net fishing in Puget Sound rivers. The state wanted tribal fishermen to be held to the same standards as non-tribal fishermen, but Indians ignored regulations.
This confrontation sparked the “fish wars” which intensified during the 1960s and 1970s.
Hank Adams, a Sioux from Montana, played a significant role in getting this issue national attention. He set up protests, fish-ins and rallies, and he even got Marlon Brando to participate in a demonstration in Olympia.
The Native Americans were instigating confrontation — and the police responded violently.
Sept. 9, 1970 marked the most extreme raid when Tacoma officers and other agents arrested 72 tribe members — including ten juveniles — using tear gas and firing shots.
Finally, federal government got involved and filed the lawsuit U.S. vs. Washington. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled that the tribes were entitled to up to 50 percent of the harvestable salmon and the ruling known as the Boldt decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court five years later.
The long-awaited decision had a powerful impact on the tribes.
The former Washington Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, who was a young attorney at the time said, ”This sent shockwaves, not only through the commercial fishing community but to the public at large. That decision really ignited a lot of pride and energy in the Indian community.”
The Native Americans may have won in their fight for justice, but the ruling could not erase the past. Decades later, the criminal records from the arrests still impact about 80 tribal members and often stop them from getting loans, adopting children or leaving the country.
Now, lawmakers in House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee are trying to give the convicted Indians a change to expunge their records. Under the measure that is expected be considered on the House floor within the next few days, tribal members could apply to the sentencing court to revoke their convictions if they were exercising their treaty fishing rights and not convicted for a violent crime. (more…)